The title of this post is a blatant rip-off of Hugh Nibley’s The Rise of Rhetoric and the Decline of Everything Else. Nibley was working with a rather narrow definition of rhetoric and saw it simply as an insincere form of speech, what we today might call spin. It is my belief that the search function of the official Church website, combined with our native laziness, has brought about a decline in the quality of speaking and teaching in our meetings.
Let’s say that brother Smith and sister Young are asked to speak next Sunday and are both given the topic of personal revelation. As they prepare, it is very likely that they will both go to the official website and type ‘personal revelation’ into the search field. The server will give them both identical results, with talks by general authorities ranked in order of relevance. Next Sunday, both Smith and Young will be seen on the stand with their scriptures and a sheaf of papers an inch thick. Both stacks of papers will contain long passages of cut and paste material from general authorities’ conference talks, right down to a word for word recounting of the personal anecdotes of the GA in question. Their talks will cover the same ground, quote the same scripture passages, and relate the same third person experiences. And it wouldn’t be surprising to hear the speakers express amazement at the workings of the spirit, which contrived to put the same words in their mouths. That is especially ironic under the circumstances, given that the topic is personal revelation.
An over-reliance on conference talks as source material can bring about a sacrament meeting where the sermons are nothing more than recycled quotes from our leaders, delivered in the dreaded and deadly “quote……closed quote” style. It is not uncommon to hear a talk conclude not with the speaker’s testimony, but with the speaker reading a testimony lifted, verbatim and with attribution, from general conference. I often get the impression that the speaker thinks her own testimony isn’t quite good enough, and consequently she relies on the authority of the apostle she is quoting. I think that is tragic.
If my talk consists mostly of a recitation of GA quotes, where the only contribution I make is the verbiage that connects elder X’s personal experience with apostle Y’s testimony, am I not in violation of the instruction given in section 9, where Oliver Cowdery is told to “study it out” for himself? Am I not engaging in a form of insincere speech? It is alarming to me to realize that this style of speaking is becoming more and more common. Most people would agree that, month in and month out, the best meetings are testimony meetings. I contend that the reason we like them is because they are sincere and authentic, in a way our other meetings are not. The spontaneous, unscripted nature of a testimony meeting has certain drawbacks, but I will gladly choose to overlook them in order to hear a heartfelt expression of belief.
We may be losing the ability to talk about our faith in an authentic manner. I am a poor missionary indeed if, when a friend asks me about my beliefs, the first thing that comes to mind is an impersonal statement from an unknown third party. Every ward and branch in this church contains amazing people. Their stories and testimonies needn’t take a back seat to anyone. When they tell their stories and declare their convictions from the pulpit, they enrich us all.
In conclusion, I would like to share a quote from president James E. Faust. He said, quote: “I ask the Lord to bless us all, that we will “not [be] ashamed of the gospel of Christ” and that we will humbly bear our testimonies about it and about the joys and blessings and strength we receive as we live its teachings and follow its precepts.”